The Battle Over Sirens In Columbia, IL

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COLUMBIA, IL (KTVI)-- A debate is raging in Columbia, Illinois over how often to sound the city’s warning sirens.  While most places test their sirens monthly, in Columbia they go off at least twice a day.

"Twice a day, six days a week.  For sure. Except Sundays," daycare operator Courtney Matzenbacher said with a laugh.

She runs the daycare center across the street from City Hall, home to one of the three sirens here.  The sirens, she says, are deafening, and more troubling still for a building full of toddlers.

"Either they scream at the top of their lungs and go with it, or some with sensory issues cover their ears and duck down."

It’s a disruption for Frank Baliva, who lives across the street from one siren.

"Every evening at 6:00 and you first get home and you’re having dinner with your family and these loud sirens go off, it can be very aggravating."

The sounding of the sirens here goes back generations.  The practice originated as a help to farmers.  The noon blast let them know it was lunchtime.  The 6pm alarm signified quitting time.  But in this age of cell phones and text messaging, many believe the practice is archaic.

"It is a neat thing," resident Jerry Berghoefer said.  "I grew up with it, all my life. 50 years I’ve heard it.  But do we need it now?    No."

But when a group of residents went to City Hall to get the practice changed, a funny thing happened.  A significant number of people came out of the woodwork, fighting to keep the sirens just as they are.

“Ultimately last night we had quite a crowd that showed up last night at the council meeting, some favoring maintaining the sirens as a tradition in Columbia and others asking that they be blown less often,” City Administrator Al Hudzik said.

Matzenbacher was among those at the meeting, saying it’s time for a change while trying to be respectful of those she disagrees with.

”They say it has been around for so many years.  It would take away the small country town tradition and history away from Columbia.  We have plenty of history in Columbia.”

Some feel there is a racial component to this as well.  In the days before the civil rights movement, predominantly white communities, known as sundown towns, would sound an evening whistle, supposedly to warn people of color to leave before sundown.

Most we spoke to weren’t even aware of such practices, or any connotation that might go with it.  To them, it’s a practical matter.  It’s a matter of noise.

“I’m sure there are a lot of dogs in the area that will be glad it’s not there because they howl every time,” Berghoefer said.

The city council heard discussion on the matter, but took no action.  Alderwoman Mary Ellen Niemietz says they’re still gathering information and that there is no time frame for the council to vote on the issue.